The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Thursday, December 27, 2012


From seedling to seedking                                       

Batu is East Java’s Eden.

Rumpled hills and smooth valleys, modest mountains dressing their cleavage with clouds, well watered, cool and fertile, lush and lovely.

It’s famous for apples, flowers and vegetables that grow fast and in abundance.  The town square parades its prosperity with a celebration of kitsch, giant concrete fruits.

So natural to assume the markets in towns nearby are overflowing with fresh, cheap, local produce, helping the nation reach its goal of food self sufficiency.

Wrong.  The delicious big red carrots are from China, the crunchy, sweet apples from New Zealand and the US.   All look splendid and are priced equal or cheaper.  Why?

“That’s a very tricky question,” said Hendro Basuki, 76, who’s been a seed producer for more than 40 years in the Republic, and 20 in this region.  “There are so many factors involved, including infrastructure.

“If there was a highway between Batu and Malang (East Java’s second largest city), expenses could be cut by ten to 20 per cent. (The current road is narrow and choked.)  

“Bureaucracy is also very annoying with permits and licences.  Our costs are still too high.”

Then he uttered a heresy: “Batu isn’t suitable for apples. There’s no winter to shed the leaves so they have to be hand picked.  Better to import from NZ.  Batu is best for leaf vegetables, like beans, leaks, spinach and lettuce.”

As a young agricultural engineer who turned to horticulture in the late 1960s, he was employed on a Dutch project that required a close look at Indonesia’s horticultural industry.

“I found it backward,” he said.  “You have to understand the history.  The Dutch were mainly interested in plantations of coffee, cocoa, tea, rubber and tobacco. They never really had a policy on rice production or horticulture.

“I had no great expectations for my life. However God thought otherwise.”

His dream of a comfortable future on a couple of hectares with around 16 workers was rapidly uprooted, replanted by an analytical mind sharpened by personal research and overseas travel that spotted trends and techniques.

Now Hendro’s companies Bibit Baru and Selektani have four seed-production farms in three provinces and 1,500 growers who double as workers.  They learn the techniques of modern plant husbandry, growing, pollinating and harvesting seed in plastic-sheeted greenhouses big enough to shelter a Boeing.
“I call them ‘growers’, not ‘farmers’, because they have knowledge and skills, know how to plan and organize and actualize,” he said.

“Farmers are conservative and it’s difficult to introduce new technology. The situation has improved. Our job is to educate and modernize.”

His companies’ products are exported to Europe and the US; some are sold domestically.  However traditionalists prefer to let a few plants go to seed to provide a resource for the next season rather than spend on new varieties.

The results can be seen in the shops:  Shrunken cauliflower heads, midget broccoli and the famed manalagi (“I want more”) apples introduced in the colonial era when jaws were stronger could be used in baseball if the dangers to strikers weren’t so great

The squishy, sick tomatoes, a variety pioneered in Italy for the pulp industry, would be better used for political protests.

Hendro’s growth from south Central Java village lad to a national seedking has much to do with the Japanese occupation of Java.

His father and uncles were interred; their crime was to be well educated shopkeepers, speakers of Dutch and therefore suspect.  Their businesses were confiscated.  The once well-off family used sacks for clothes and grew vegetables to survive.

Hendro was the youngest of seven, just eight when the invaders arrived in 1942.  He soon learned to plant, till and harvest. 

“I was a good observer and a curious child,” he said.  “I was always asking questions about nature, like ‘why is there rain?’  I’d already been to a Dutch school so could speak the language.”

After the war the family bounced back and Hendro went to the Indonesian University.  His folks wanted him garlanded with a stethoscope but he failed entrance tests.  No matter, as long as he graduated with a title – and engineer was good enough to calm parental anxieties.

Next a grant to study tropical horticulture in the US and a planned PhD at the University of Hawaii.  Along the way he mastered English and German and visited Europe.

Business beckoned. He dropped his doctoral thesis to concentrate on the commercialism of agriculture.  Before this happened he learned a useful lesson in human behavior.

Like his fellow students he got by on a monthly grant of US $150.  Unlike his classmates who were frequently in debt before the next payment, the frugal Indonesian had US $ 50 tucked away. 

Now he includes cash management in the programs taught to his grower employees, wishing they’d buy cows instead of motorbikes to boost their incomes rather than status.

Back in Indonesia and after working for a German company and on the Dutch project he set out on his own, starting in 1971 in Medan, North Sumatra.

In 1992 he took over an old Dutch coffee plantation in Batu at an elevation of 1,400 meters and started building the greenhouses where geraniums, snapdragons, begonias and tomatoes are pollinated by hand.

“Not many investors are interested in seed production,” he said as the pregnant clouds tumbled off the peaks and broke their waters.

“It’s long term, capital intensive and the risks are great.  But the returns can be good, 20 per cent or more.

“I have research programs in place with the Dutch.  I’d like to do the same with NZ so we can both benefit.

“I’ve got money, but there are things of the soul to consider.  I’d like to see a time when being a farmer is an honorable occupation. Too many want to leave the land, creating future problems.

“Looking back I think I’ve helped give people work – and something they need.  That’s important – that’s satisfaction.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 December 2012)


Sunday, December 23, 2012


A screaming start to a seminar            

Capable and committed; Dr Sari Timur (left) and Dita Novirani


Eight years ago on 26 December Indonesia was struck by the third strongest earthquake in the world’s recorded history. More than 170,000 perished in Aceh – another 60,000 in nearby countries.

Such natural disasters can’t be prevented, but effective preparations are possible.  Duncan Graham reports from Yogya:

DIOS sounds like an upmarket fashion house selling Italian calfskin handbags, though the entrance is more the airy foyer of a smart resort.  The walls carry relaxing pictures of beautiful Indonesia, the images beloved by government tourism.

So far, so good.

After check-in why not take a guided tour?  Through this door please, and just stand.

There’s little more to do because the space is draped in black curtains and it seems there’s no way forward.   Then the noise begins, a full-on real life recording of people in panic following a natural tragedy.  The distress is so close the terror is tangible.

“Welcome to the Disaster Oasis Training Center, otherwise known as DIOS,” said Dr Sari Timur, director of the Yakkum Emergency Unit that runs DIOS. “As far as we know this facility is unique in Indonesia.

“We call this our hysteria room. Outside you saw the Indonesia we love.   Now some reality.  Enter the museum.”

When the racket ceases and the curtains open the ear-bashed visitor staggers into a large room with a mezzanine floor.  At its center a grubby, scratched Styrofoam fish box on two dugout canoes.

They’re surrounded by other garbage, making the display look like the work of a deranged artist with post-modern pretensions.

But this box is special. It saved the life of baby Nuri Isani. She was popped into the container by her mother just as the December 2004 Aceh tsunami hit following a massive undersea earthquake.

Most of the family perished including Mom but Nuri survived and was found bobbing in the water two days later, safe in her little lifeboat. 

The message is clear: Screaming and running is a natural reaction but one heroic parent rapidly improvised and saved her daughter.  In an emergency you need to think fast and act faster.

Miracles happen, but they often need a human nudge.

Elsewhere in the museum are photos of terrible destruction and heroic folk.  There’s no grotesque footage of bloated corpses, but the evidence is enough to ensure the visitor understands the enormity and tragedy that follows when nature turns brutal.

If still in doubt there’s a television, bicycle and bits of farm equipment, all ash gray, cemented and distorted.  They lie in a heap like the concreted corpses of the victims of Vesuvius, the Italian volcano that exploded in 79, smothering the people of nearby Pompeii.

The exhibits are just one feature of DIOS.  The others are the solidly-built cottages sprinkled around a small pool, each one named after a disaster area like Nias, Flores and Lombok and featuring the architecture of the regions. A soccer field alongside doubles as a helipad and evacuation zone.

The center has 31 bedrooms and four meeting rooms where moving the furniture is inadvisable.  The desks are made of tough teak, designed to shelter should an earthquake hit and masonry tumble.

DIOS is promoted as ‘a pleasant and peaceful area in the midst of plight.’ The setting is serene, the ambience a delight.

“That’s what most foreigners say,” said Dr Sari.  “Unfortunately many Indonesians take a different view.  They prefer to have seminars in luxury settings.”

DIOS is hardly Hotel Hardship. The rooms have splendid outlooks and WiFi but no television; this is a place for serious study.  When you’ve tired of the museum there’s a library, a luxury-seat theaterette and a display of smart thinking drawn from real disasters, with the presence of a manikin corpse on a trolley as a reminder of the real purpose.

No sterile dressings for the wounded?  Use young banana-leaf stems before they uncurl.  The insides are clean and moist.  Damaged hands can’t hold spoons?  Wrap the handles in cloth and twist the metal around to suit.  Need splints for fractured femurs? Split bamboo does just fine.

Straight up the center of the complex past the evacuation signs and on a clear morning can be seen Mount Merapi, the fire mountain that exploded in 2010 killing 353.  This put DIOS to the test.  (See breakout)

The idea of an emergency training center came from the previous director of Yakkum, Sigit Wijayanta using a grant of 502,000 Euros from the German Protestant Agency for Diakonia (service) and Development known as EED.

Local architect Setyo Dharmodjo designed the reinforced quake-resistant buildings to be functional but appealing.

Despite YEU’s Christian background Dr Sari stressed the NGO was absolutely non partisan.  “We help everyone in distress whoever they are and we never proselytise,” she said.  “That’s not our job or interest. This is a Muslim area and we are the minority so we need and get their acceptance and support.”

Her office wall is dominated by a picture of the late president Gus Dur, an Islamic scholar who constantly preached pluralism and tolerance, above a Javanese poem in his honor

Despite this a few have protested the design of some buildings, claiming the roofs are too steep and therefore like a church, or that crucifixes can be seen or imagined in the way cross beam supports have been designed.

Logical explanations regarding load-bearing tend not to move those determined to find signs of sinister intent – but these have usually been dismissed by the less superstitious majority.  Many staff are Muslims and find no fault in the environment or philosophy, Dr Sari said.

The complex is busy, mainly running courses for corporate clients from across the archipelago.  It would seem the ideal place to train the police and army, but so far no inquiries.

According to YEU information manager Dita Novirani about 6,000 new hotel beds have become available in Yogya in the past year, many at prices competing with DIOS, but offering a less thought-provoking environment.


Challenging SBY

DIOS staff learned useful lessons after their training center had been built in 2008.  Though located closer to Merapi than the city, the volcano wasn’t considered a threat.  Past eruptions had seen larva flow, and smoke blow, in other directions.

Not this time.  On the night of 25 October 2010 almost 400 local people, mainly women and children, were sheltering at DIOS, having been evacuated from their homes closer to the flaming summit.

Only four young women were in charge.  Despite all the careful planning, ensuring full rosters of well-rested staff at all times had slipped off the agenda.

The area was crackling with more than 500 quakes. Eruptions had topped those of the 1872 big bang. This was a national crisis.  President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered all DIOS refugees evacuated to the city stadium.

“Five military trucks arrived around 3 am to move us, but I protested,” said Dr Sari.  “I feared our community would be stranded and get little care among the 32,000 other people at the stadium.  I wanted them to go instead to a seminary where accommodation and resources were available.”

Challenging presidential orders is a tough call, particularly for an NGO official with no government authority at a time of great urgency. But the people on four of the trucks backed her reasoning and the army yielded.

When the staff returned to DIOS weeks later they found it sagging under heavy mud.  In the ash on a sign advertising the Disaster Oasis Center some cruel wag had scrawled in English; ‘You got what you asked for.’

A few tiles had broken and let in rain.  Vandals had ransacked the bunker stealing emergency food supplies and fuel, but otherwise it was mainly sweeping and shovelling.

“It took about three weeks,” said Dita.  “We were offered a lot of help but managing volunteers is another difficult task, particularly when they come with limited time and their own values.

“We’ve learned that in an emergency we must make sure everyone is heard and involved even though separated.  We weren’t insured then – but we are now.

“When we face another disaster I hope our work will be lighter.”

(First published in The Sunday Post 23 December 2012)











Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Laughing up business                                              

Hollering into a handphone in a restaurant or openly reading e-mails during an important presentation seem to be required skills for businessmen in Indonesia.  

Women generally find brashness unnecessary to polish their credentials.  So does Western Australia’s outgoing (in both senses) Jakarta-based Trade Director.

“It’s behavior I really dislike,” he said.  “I don’t own an iPad or a BlackBerry.  That’s a fruit. I’m a Newbery.”

If Martin Newbery had used that corny one-liner when he walked out of Soekarno-Hatta seven years ago he’d have risked ridicule as an eccentric wonder from Down Under.

Whoever prefers graciousness above gadgetry?  Add the bleached thatch indicating a preference for beach over fairway, and a suspect image might have set.

But his eclectic CV embraced bureaucracy and business, a rare combo. He’d learned the language and felt at ease in kampong and corporate tower.

As a young Australian public servant he’d surfed Bali.  Then he tried Java and found heaven. He switched to air-freighting fresh fruit into Indonesia, then ran seven prawn trawlers crewed by Indonesians, a job that required tact and toughness.

While talking to The Jakarta Post he politely but firmly flicked away a major Indonesian government department wanting to attend a seminar, but dictating terms. “My show, my rules,” he said.

Staying upright on a twisting board, speed skimming just ahead of towering waves yet having fun, is an apt metaphor for surfing the rips of Indonesian business culture where getting dumped is an everyday hazard.

“Investors should consider my five P principles,” Newbery said.  “Be Patient, be Present and Persevere.

“It’s no good trying to trade using e-mails from a distance.  Establish trust. That means personal contact.  It takes time.

“Then there’s Payment.  It’s important to understand and accept the way Indonesians do business and run their accounts.  Sometimes people agree too fast without understanding the detail.”

And the final P?  Newbery’s colorful phrase risks misinterpretation by those stumped by Australian slang.  Best translate as ‘having a good time’.

“Never get down to business without first having a laugh,” he said.  “Indonesians have a great sense of humor.  It’s one of many factors that make this country and its people such a delight.

“I don’t accept we’re clumsy when dealing with other cultures. That’s not the right word. Sometimes ill-prepared and vulnerable, too fearful and hung up on things like drinking and eating pork. We should just be ourselves.

“I’m a proud Australian (he has convict ancestors) and very proud that we’re friendly, respectful and keen to learn.  We have so much in common with Indonesians and can work together to improve people’s lives. 

“There are still misconceptions and an element that has a poor attitude, but that’s diminishing.  I take a positive view.”

At the end of November and days before he left, Newbery was in Surabaya witnessing re-endorsement of the 23-year old sister-state agreement between East Java and Western Australia, the only State that maintains a continuous full-time presence in Indonesia.

Earlier Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a new Asian Century policy to reposition Australian culture and business in their real geographical location, far from Europe.

“This is what I’ve been saying all along,” said Newbery who’s been involved with Indonesia for more than three decades.  “For too long we’ve been overflying this country to concentrate on trade elsewhere.

“Investors have taken the view that the Indonesian market is a little bit too difficult, or tricky. It has its characteristics, but it’s not too hard to adjust.”
Newbery, turning 60 and still surfing, said he’s quitting to spend more time with his three children in New South Wales, and because “I’m growing tired and need a year off.

“I might start the day talking milk, then move to beef, followed by mining services, shift to oil and gas and finish the day discussing seed potatoes. In future I’ll be working as an independent advisor on single issues.”

Foremost will be attempts to get Indonesians eating tempe (soy bean cake) using lupins.  He’ll be helping the 115,000 strong cottage industries adjust to the new resource and improve processing techniques.

“Overall I’m pleased with what’s been achieved,” Newbery said. “The low point was banning live cattle exports. That should have been handled better, though the Embassy team did a great job.”

Last year the Australian media exposed cruel practices in Indonesian abattoirs.  Canberra responded to public outrage by banning exports. When they resumed Jakarta imposed quotas.

Newbery suggested a crisis could have been avoided through both sides agreeing to improve facilities and techniques.

 “It was a matter of bad practices that had gone unchecked, not different attitudes towards animal welfare,” he said. “No ban, just a firm action plan.

“Indonesia has become too self-protective.  Food security is good, but the way it’s being done is too tough and complex. 

“We’re the most efficient cattle breeders and Indonesia the most efficient cattle feeders – we can work together and create a meat export industry.  We’re not stealing customers; we’re supplementing your production to meet demand.”

Newbery’s role hasn’t been confined to boardrooms.  He’s helped premier soccer squad Perth Glory and several basket ball teams play in the Republic.

Going the other way have been santri (religious students) looking at agricultural colleges.  “When people meet people, business falls out of the encounter,” he said.

The WA government closed its Surabaya office after it was trashed during the East Timor 1999 referendum protests and moved it to Kuningan.

Newbery said it should shift back to Surabaya “if for no other reason than it’s so time wasting trying to mover around Jakarta.”  His position will be temporarily filled by agri-business advisor Kellie-Jane Pritchard.

Deputy Premier Dr Kim Hames said Newbery had been a “fantastic representative” for the State. NGO special needs schools activist Trisha Henderson praised Newbery for holding governments to their aid commitments.

“I’ll be back, particularly during southern winters,” said the phone phobic who prefers eye contact to iPad.   “Indonesia’s my second home.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 10 December 2012)




Sunday, December 09, 2012


Still standing tall: Raffles' statue in Singapore

Knocking a reputation

Felling tall timbers takes more skill than whacking away with a blunt blade. 

Tim Hannigan, Cornish chef turned travel writer and one-time Surabaya chalkie has used an old trick to seek fame:  If you can’t find an unknown needing elevation and your own tale’s not worth telling, try iconoclasm.

Sir Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant Governor of Java between 1811 and 1816 is the target.  How could one ill-educated young man (he arrived in Java aged 30) from a lowly background and with no military experience have achieved so much?

There have to be explanations beyond ability, leadership, foresight and intellect.  So said the curmudgeons trampled or ignored by this high achiever – and Hannigan has helped give these belittlers the chance to hack away at the image in the provocatively titled Raffles and the British Invasion of Java. 

However the man, like his imposing statue in Singapore, is not easily toppled.  Not because some evidence against Raffles lacks substance, but because the author strains to hate when he should have let the facts damn.

Raffles made mistakes deserving exposure and analysis. He quit Java in near disgrace having failed to make the colony pay; perhaps because he wasn’t ruthless enough. He died in debt; a careless accountant – or a man driven by concerns other than profit?

Blind hero worship serves no one well. Objective scholarship that re-examines a famous life is a valid exercise.

To do it well requires an open mind.  Hannigan says the idea for the book came when Indonesian students claimed all would have been well with their nation had the British, not the Dutch, been the colonizers. 

Hollanders have a different view, particularly over the Palembang massacre when 86 settlers and their servants were murdered after Raffles provoked the local sultan to ‘dismiss (the Dutch) from his territories.’

Less well known, and Hannigan has done a service with this revelation, is that in 1811 the British didn’t want Java. Instructions from the East India Company were to evict the Dutch, destroy their forts and ‘hand the island over to the Javanese.’  They reasoned administrative costs would drown profits.  They were right.

Holland had been occupied by the French during the Napoleonic Wars. The wash-up included the British taking over the Dutch colony of Java.

The colonials resisted but were no match for British resolve and the courage of the extraordinary Colonel Rollo Gillespie. 

Raffles, the administrator, and his boss Lord Minto had other ideas about the future of Java.  They rationalized that the Europeans and Chinese would be slaughtered if the British quit – a justified fear as events proved.

Instead, according to Hannigan, Raffles and his friends ‘fantasised over … an empire of the mind as much as a political entity … a playground for their intellects and imaginations, a historical trove of which they – orientalists to their very socks – could take possession.’

So instructions were ignored and a great moment to change the destiny of the future Indonesia passed.  The British Interregnum ran for five years until another shift in European politics allowed the Dutch to return and vilify the caretakers.

The locals learned to keep left on the roads and were treated to some other benefits of British rule.  Torture a favorite tool of the Dutch – was stopped, but slavery was apparently continued despite being outlawed elsewhere in the Empire. (Raffles kept eight slaves, says Hannigan.) Land reforms were introduced, but never finalised.

History is always written by the victors and Raffles made sure his version was recorded in triplicate.  Here he was helped by his hagiographer in chief and aide-de-camp, the ‘snivelling sycophant’ Thomas Travers.

Along with the writings of Raffles’ second wife Sophia, Travers has been the source of past favorable histories of Raffles’ rule.  Hannigan labels them ‘mythomaniacs’ and claims to have by-passed their accounts for original materials such as the India Office Archives in London.

But then he doesn’t give the reader references.  There are no endnotes to back his assertions, no index to assist navigation and only 24 footnotes. 

Who, for example, were the clich├ęd ‘old Asia hands who still sneered at the very mention of Raffles’ name’ - jealous underlings, the bitter Dutch or impartial scholars? 

Instead we get slabs of embroidered prose better suited to travel puffs by a writer in love with the perpendicular pronoun and deaf to Mark Twain’s advice on employing adjectives: When in doubt, strike out.

There are too many gratuitous comments like Raffles’ signature style being ‘bombastic’, his first wife Olivia’s fondness for brandy (‘a little rosy of cheek, perhaps’) and his ‘insecure egoism’.

Are these observations grounded on facts or the progeny of an over-worked imagination? What’s the purpose? Snide asides from the pens of Raffle’s contemporaries dipped in bile can be judged as relevant or otherwise only if we know the writers’ pedigrees.

Raffles may not have personally torn down the jungle strangling Borobudur but he did approve the work that led to its conservation.  Perhaps he plagiarised to produce The History of Java – but it was published. Others might have spent the money on armaments and fortresses.

Hannigan writes well in his accounts of battles where the reader gets a feel for the terrain, but fails elsewhere by inserting his loathing of a ‘jumped-up clerk with a ghastly wife’ into the narrative. Others might have found them a loving and fun couple.

What drove Raffles, later to become the ‘Father of Singapore’? Did he want to do good but got defeated by scheming rivals and his own failings?  Curiously this book came out just days ahead of another revision of Raffles – this time by the established biographer Victoria Glendinning.  Reports suggest it’s more sympathetic.

In the epilogue Hannigan admits enjoying a ‘sense of iconoclastic outrage’. It’s never wise to gloat.  A smarter writer would have honed his axe before tackling a giant.

(First published in The Sunday Post 9 December 2012)

Wednesday, December 05, 2012


A stroke of ill fortune

There nothing quite like a family tragedy to put the plight of the disabled into perspective.

If you and your loved ones have escaped misfortune consider yourself lucky – and pause to ponder the situation of others.

If that’s too onerous a task for everyday, just set time aside tomorrow (Mon 3 Dec) for the International Day of People with Disabilities. 

This year’s theme is Removing Barriers.  There’s no shortage.

Like millions of others, my brother-in-law and his immediate family wish they could squash a year of distress into just one day.

My BIL only partially fitted the profile of a stroke victim:  No spare flesh, under 55, not diabetic, doesn’t smoke (but used to), eats frugally, though not always well.  He’s been a stranger to doctors and a splendid armchair sportsman.

One morning last year he was ambushed and felled by a tiny arterial obstruction.  Had he got to a modern hospital within four hours and been injected with the new wonder clot-busting drugs he might now be fully active.

Instead his recovery has been incomplete.  That he’s now out of a wheelchair and can shuffle down the street almost unaided is a tribute to his determination and the perseverance of close family and friends.

The disabled share their suffering. Stroke victims aren’t easy to handle.  They often get uncontrollably emotional over the smallest issues, losing temper, straining relationships.  Arm and leg lifting exercises tax patient and helper because progress is measured in hair widths and never guaranteed.

At times like these families should demand hospitals give therapists and nurses the sort of salaries reserved for directors.

Tried pushing a wheelchair along an Indonesian sidewalk?  Civic authorities clearly haven’t, or there wouldn’t be steep kerbs and black holes big enough to swallow chair and carer.

Ever relied on the stability of a crutch to keep upright?  Then you’ll know about fearing fractured footpaths and curse the unthinking who park across pavements.

There are supposed to be laws insisting on disabled access to every public building. Take time tomorrow to check the ramps, lifts and door widths around your office. 

Then count the number of handicapped in your workplace.  It’s supposed to be at least one per cent.  It probably isn’t. Ask why.
Because Indonesians are curious and friendly people, convalescent exercises in public become chatterthons revealing the huge number of families in similar situations.

These encounters can be depressing if dad died, therapeutic if uncle bounced back and is now a gymnastics champ.

There are no accurate statistics for the number of stroke victims in Indonesia but the indicators show more than four million new cases in the Republic every year.

Sounds too few.  Those who’ve cared for a victim soon pick the familiar signs in the streets – the half-raised hand, the one-foot drag, the crablike movement, unwiped spittle and slurred speech. Such people seem to be everywhere – and they’re the survivors.
Strokes kill.  If they fail first time, like political candidates they often try again. At least one in four will be thumped anew, usually within five years.
Drug companies claim strokes are now the number one cause of death for all non-communicable diseases.

What does all this mean to those of us who haven’t felt our chests suddenly gripped and crushed by a giant hand and experienced the icy press of mortality competing with the sweat of terror?

Recognize the symptoms.  Rush to hospital; better to lose your dignity if it’s heartburn than your life if it’s not.

Reduce the risks. Keeping blood pressure down is vital, say doctors.  So is exercise and eating low cholesterol foods. Smoking is not an option.

Apart from wishing a speedy return to normality for victims and families, here’s an appeal to every legislator and civil engineer: Consider the handicapped in your plans.  Just a little care and forethought can make a difference in the lives of those less nimble.

But hey, wait a minute: A decent society is measured by the way the less fortunate, the distressed and disadvantaged are treated.  Do we really need a United Nations day to make us do something that should come naturally?  

(First published in The Sunday Post, 2 December 2012)